By Mannix Porterfield
OAK HILL —
Even the Beatles, on occasion, needed a little help from their friends.
In the world of bluegrass, veteran musician Donnie Ray Mayhew relied on his wide circle of friends to produce a new CD, titled “Long Overdue.”
So far, Mayhew’s idea to draw on the talents of 25 fellow artists has proved popular. In one month since its release, it has been snatched up by 400 bluegrass lovers.
As a youngster, such tunes as “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Dueling Banjos” and “Rocky Top” certainly were appealing, but it held no riveting attraction, since he considered it just a small part of the music scene.
“I never really dug into it until I graduated from high school in 1990,” said the Russellville resident.
Three years later, he tuned into Reno’s Old time Music, and heard some mandolin solos, and soon afterward, a preacher gave him some records of Quicksilver’s Doyle Lawson.
An uncle lent him a mandolin, a member of the lute family, and there was ample reason for immediate discouragement.
“It was horrible,” Mayhew recalled.
“It was just so hard to play. It wouldn’t tune good. My father saw my interest in it. One day he said, ‘Let’s you and me take a ride.’ He took me over to the old Pied Piper at Crossroads Mall. I got an A style mandolin, which I still have.”
Self-taught, he never had a formal lesson, although he has given many over the years.
“People asked me how I learned,” he said. “You can hardly describe it. You just have it and listen a lot and watch. You learn more by watching other musicians than by listening.”
Before long, he had mastered the guitar, five-string banjo, the upright bass, and for good measure, the harmonica.
“When you know music and you’re around music, one instrument really helps the learning curve about learning another instrument,” he said.
“You’re far ahead of the game.”
Bluegrass has always had its loyal following, a product of Appalachia that was influenced, to some degree, by the Celtic strains carried into the rugged hills by the Scottish and Irish immigrants.
“You hear a lot of that influence, for sure,” Mayhew said.
“A lot of instruments in bluegrass is still different from what they played. They played a lot of accordions, and an instrument called the penny whistle. But we always try to hold on to it as our music. There are going to be influences. You can hear some of the same African influences in some spiritual numbers you hear in bluegrass. You definitely get that African feel. I still like to think the core of what is bluegrass originated right here in our Appalachia, our demographic.”
While styles have been copied far and wide, the high, lonesome sound is a phenomenon rooted deeply in a large swatch stretching from Tennessee to the Carolinas, engulfing Virginia and West Virginia, and, of course, the Bluegrass State.
“There are great bluegrass artists everywhere,” Mayhew said.
“People talk about the Bible Belt. This is kind of the Bluegrass Belt.”
Like its country-western first cousin, bluegrass often addresses the hardships of life, particularly in past centuries, of the simple, if hardscrabble, times of living in a cabin deep inside the mountains.
“That’s really foreign to someone from California and New York,” Mayhew said.
“That’s just not normal for them to sing about that type of thing.”
Perhaps not, but the 1967 film about two bank robbers swept up in the Great Depression, “Bonnie & Clyde,” featured the syncopating sound of Earl Scruggs and the rest of the Foggy Mountain Boys in the film score.
Suddenly, bluegrass was striking some happy chords with folks in the more sophisticated locales, and Mayhew points out the popular sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies,” likewise featuring the talents of Flatt & Scruggs (who appeared in some episodes as themselves), didn’t hurt to spread the music’s fame.
“When I hear a lot of people say they don’t like bluegrass, they know it from just a few tunes,” Mayhew said.
“Most people I’ve seen who have listened or heard it live usually have a different opinion as they did going in. You have to be a pretty accomplished musician to play it and play it well, and play it right. It’s sure not easy with the breakneck speed of a lot of it. And we play in a lot of odd keys, B flat and B, some chords musicians don’t normally like to play in.”
In some venues, notably rock, one can mask a mediocre performance by turning up the amplifiers. Not so in bluegrass.
“We play in a microphone just to get louder,” Mayhew said.
“What you see is what you get. Nothing slick. Either you can play or you can’t play it.”
For years, Mayhew earned his keep as a home builder until the devastating effects of diabetes made manual work impossible, specifically the nerve damage known as neuropathy.
“I made a great living until I got sick,” he said.
Mayhew has succeeded in transforming a youthful fascination into a hobby and now a means of supplementing his income.
Most people filing into pastures and auditoriums these days weren’t around for the advent of bluegrass, which Mayhew feels came in 1945 when Bill Monroe and his combo, consisting of Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wiseman and Howard “Cedric Rainwater” Watts, debuted at the old Ryman Auditorium (the Grand Ole Opry) in 1945.
In the album’s liner notes is a picture of Mayhew paying his respects at Monroe’s gravesite.
“They say bluegrass is the only music that was born in America,” he said.
“There’s the harmony structure and the type of instrumentation. The music in my opinion is far more important than music is in a lot of genres. We take breaks, improvisations. It’s its own type of music, for sure.”
Among the artists in the CD is Buddy Griffin, a native of Summersville, who played on the Grand Ole Opry for years with Jim and Jesse and the Goins Brothers. Griffin launched and taught for several years the bluegrass curriculum at Glenville State College.
Another friend, Duffy Boyd, teams with Mayhew in a band now, based in Fayetteville and known as Lost Canyon.
The CD sells for $15 and can be obtained by contacting Mayhew at 304-573-3206, or at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Facebook.
“Duffy and I have got a product on the front burner,” he said.
“I think we might do an instrumental. We’re going to try to knock that one out.”
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